USM needs to improve defense to take next step|Opinion

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 25, 2009

NEW ORLEANS — Is Larry Fedora’s “attack” credo sounding as hollow as a dry gourd?

Sunday’s 42-32 loss to Sunbelt champion Middle Tennessee in the New Orleans Bowl was a hangover the Golden Eagles would rather not taken when leaving the Crescent City. The quick reason for the painful loss was the defense’s inability to make plays.

Offensively, the Golden Eagles were stellar, scoring a school-record 428 points this season. Damion Fletcher had another 1,000-yard season. Backup quarterback Martevious Young did a good job rallying the team after Austin Davis was sidelined for the season with a broken foot. Young threw for 1,861 yards, had a touchdown pass in seven consecutive starts, and threw only three interceptions in 230 attempts.

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Now the bad.

With the way the USM defense gave up yardage in clumps to good quarterbacks, it was little surprise that it couldn’t corral 5-foot-9 Middle Tennessee quarterback Dwight Dasher, who set an NCAA bowl record with 201 yards rushing.

Dasher was hard to find and made some spectacular plays on third down that kept the chains moving, either with his feet or throwing on the run. With Dasher at the helm, the Blue Raiders carved up USM’s defense to the tune of 450 total yards.

But it wasn’t the first time the Southern Miss defense was ripped to pieces by a marquee quarterback. Todd Reesing of Kansas (331 yards passing, three touchdowns) was the first to pad his stat sheet. Houston’s Case Keenum cut the Golden Eagles to ribbons, throwing for 559 yards and five scores. UAB’s Joe Webb ran for 145 yards as the bottom-feeding Blazers embarrassed USM.

Southern Miss ranked third in Conference USA in scoring defense and total defense this season. It was eighth out of 12 teams against the pass, however, allowing 265.1 yards per game.

The solution is simple: the Golden Eagles need to overhaul their defense. During Jeff Bower’s tenure, they were known for their thorny defense and conservative offense. Now the paradigm has shifted.

If Fedora wants the program to rise to the next level, he’s got to combine his ingenious spread offense with a much-improved defense.

Despite the disheartening loss, Fedora is still bullish on the program’s future.

“I still think we’re going in the right direction,” Fedora said. “We probably didn’t look it tonight, but I’ve still got a belief in these guys and they’ll correct the mistakes they’ve made and get better as a football team.”